|Frank Wedekind is the author of the Lulu plays and the founder of German Expressionist drama. He was born in Hanover, Germany on 24 July 1864. His father, Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Wedekind, had fled Germany after the 1848 revolution and had settled and worked as a doctor in San Francisco. There he met a German-born opera singer, Emilie Kammerer. The two married in 1862 and returned to Germany just before the birth of their second child, Benjamin Franklin (Frank) Wedekind.
Wedekind, of course, would come to be deeply involved in literature, but earlier in his life he developed musical abilities. This may not be surprising, considering the musicality of his family: his mother, as mentioned, was an opera singer, and his sister Erika became well known as a coloratura soprano. Wedekind’s musical talents can perhaps be inferred from his studies: “as a schoolboy he learned the guitar and the flute and, later, the violin, piano and mandolin” (Jarman 13).
Wedekind’s father planned a legal career for his son, and in 1884 Wedekind moved from Switzerland, where his family at that time lived, to Munich to begin his studies. Munich was at that time the center of the literary avant-garde, home to the followers of Zola and the pre-cursors of Naturalist drama. Wedekind, by this time an aspiring writer, became involved with this community, though he immediately differentiated himself from it. He felt that the artist should not be “scientifically objective” about the society he depicts, as advocated by the Naturalists, but instead totally involved in it.
A quarrel with his father, precipitated by Wedekind’s failure to pursue legal studies, forced him into financial independence. He worked as a journalist for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and then as publicity manager for the bouillon-cube manufacturer Maggi, both positions in Zurich. While working as a freelance journalist, Wedekind wrote two articles that signaled an interest that would provide metaphors and themes throughout his work as a dramatist; they were about a touring circus troupe.
Friedrich Wilhelm died in 1891, and the inheritance brought Wedekind some financial independence. He moved to Berlin and then Munich, and felt more than ever estranged from Naturalism, the style favoured by newer playwrights in both those cities. The naturalists, like Wedekind, were opposed to the middle-class morality they found around them, but sought to replace it with a morality he found just as repressive and crippling. In addition, Wedekind was seeking a kind of drama that reflected an inner reality, rather than an “objective” reality, as sought by the Naturalists.
Wedekind completed his first major play, The Awakening of Spring, in 1891, publishing it at his own expense. The play addresses the effect of the hypocritical and repressive sexual morality of fin-de-siècle Europe on adolescents. The play was censored until 1912, though it was staged in 1906.
Wedekind moved to Paris in 1891, and there established intimate friendships hobnobbing with clowns, acrobats, weight-lifters, musicians, adventurers (Perle 1985:36). He believed that the artist who wished to create powerful art first had to live among those who would never experience any of it. The years in Paris gave him the life-experience and conceptual basis for his masterpiece, the Lulu tragedy, most of which he wrote during this time (ibid., 37).
Intended as a single, gigantic play, Lulu was published in two parts: Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandoras Box (1902). In contrast to The Awakening of Spring, the tragedy of Lulu has its source in sex itself rather than in the restrictions placed on sex by society. It shows the inevitable and irresolvable clash between the instincts and civilization (ibid., 34). The play is also a work of social criticism: in Lulu, sexual desire, oblivious to the differences of wealth and social position, exposes the artificiality of class distinctions (ibid.).
In 1895, Wedekind returned to Germany and, in the following year, founded Simplizissimus with his publisher Albert Langen. This was an instantly successful and highly influential periodical that would receive contributions from Rilke and Schnitzler, among others (Jarman 13). Wedekind wrote satirical pieces for the magazine and garnered a steady income and popular attention through this work. This only made him bitter that the four plays and the volume of short stories he had by this time published continued to be neglected.
The first ever production of one of Wedekinds plays came in 1898 when Earth Spirit was performed in Leipzig. Wedekind himself played the role of Dr. Schön, as no other actor could be found for the part. Wedekinds bizarre acting method proved appropriate to the drama, which pitted itself against Naturalism and therefore against convention.
Earth Spirit was an unexpected success in Leipzig and other German cities, but Wedekinds first stint as an actor was cut short just as performances began in Munich. Paralleling an event in Büchner's life 63 years earlier, Wedekind was warned of his coming arrest and fled to Switzerland. Wedekind had been charged with lèse-majesté - treason - for a contribution to Simplizissimus made jointly with Thomas Theodor Heine. He remained in Zurich for a year, returning to stand trial only after completing the play The Marquis of Keith. Convicted of lèse-majesté, Wedekind and Heine spent a few months in Königstein prison.
After his release from prison, Wedekind began a new career as a cabaret singer, appearing in 1901 at the famous Munich cabaret Die elf Scharfrichter (The Eleven Executioners). Accompanying himself on guitar, he sang settings of his own poems, doing so with a harshness matching the brutality of his lyrics. Bertolt Brechts own appearance as a cabaret singer in 1921 showed the influence of Wedekinds musical style, as did his Die Dreigroschenoper (1929).
Wedekinds imprisonment had spurned an outcry from the German intelligentsia, and this brought him notoriety and spurned his success as a dramatist. Beginning with Max Reinhardts production of Earth Spirit in Berlin in December 1902, Wedekinds plays received 150 performances in a single year. He was finally being recognized as an innovative and important dramatist. In contrast, Wedekind was increasingly vilified by the political, religious, and literary establishment. Pandoras Box was premiered on 1 February 1904 at the Intimes Theater in Nuremburg, but five months later the author and the publisher were charged with disseminating obscene material. It was decided that all copies of the play should be destroyed and all performances of it banned. The perceived danger and immorality of Wedekinds plays caused them to be censored until 1918, when censorship was abolished in Germany.
|Karl Kraus staged Pandoras Box in Vienna on 29 May 1905. (Private performances of this sort were possible in this city despite the censor.) Wedekind played the part of Jack the Ripper, while a young actress named Tilly Newes played Lulu. After meeting her at rehearsals and killing her on the stage, Wedekind married Tilly. Alban Berg sat in the sixth row of the hall, greedily devouring everything he witnessed, especially the introductory talk given by Karl Kraus.
Wedekinds last great play, Death and the Devil, has a far more pessimistic view of sex than does Lulu. Written in 1905, the play depicts Eros as something destructive of life itself, whereas Lulu treats it as something merely at odds with society. Also in contrast with Lulu, the play has no social dimension whatever, and thus no semblance of realistic characterization of the individual roles (Perle 1985:34).
His power as a dramatist now dissipated, Wedekinds subsequent plays seem forced and merely sensational while dealing with the themes of his previous plays (ibid., 38). Wedekind died in 1918, having left a huge mark on German literature. In his career he had invented a new type of drama that was the immediate forerunner of Expressionism, that anticipated the epic and didactic theater of Bertolt Brecht, and that points to the Theater of Absurd of our own day (ibid.).